An entire category of urban space, albeit hardly recognized as such, is disappearing across North America. As retail logistics globalizes and big-box power centres replace enclosed shopping malls from the postwar era, a distinct form of social infrastructure vanishes as well. ‘Dead malls’ are now a staple of North American (sub)urban landscapes, and have provoked local activism in many places. But despite popular concern for the demise of mall space, critical urban scholarship has largely sidelined the phenomenon. Much of the disjuncture between popular outcry and academic silence relates to conceptions of ‘public’ space, and specifically the gap between formal ownership and everyday spatial practice. Spatial practice often exceeds the conceptions of designers and managers, transforming malls into community space. This is particularly true in declining inner suburbs, where poor and racialized communities depend more heavily on malls for social reproduction as well as recreation and consumption. In this article we investigate the revolution in logistics that has provoked the phenomenon of ‘dead malls’ and the creative activism emerging that aims to protect mall space as ‘community space’. Taking the case of the Morningside Mall in an old suburb of Toronto, we investigate the informal claims made on mall space through everyday spatial practice and the explicit claims for community space that arise when that space is threatened. We argue that many malls have effectively become community space, and activism to prevent its loss can be understood as a form of anti-globalization practice, even if it never employs that language. Morningside Mall is a prime illustration of the conflict inherent in privatized public spaces — that despite collective voice and action the ‘public’ still had no impact on the fate of ‘their’ space. However, Morningside reveals the need to consider spatial practice beyond our preconceived notions of what goes on in spaces designed for private use. This neglected area of study signals the potential for a vast range of exploratory ethnographic revisionings of public space and spatial practices in surprising places.
Matt Galloway spoke with Deborah Cowen about her new report and the forum at which it would be launched. The report, “Toronto’s inner suburbs: Investing in social infrastructure in Scarborough,” by Deborah Cowen and Vanessa Parlette, was launched June 16, 2011, at Scarborough Civic Centre Council Chambers. Toronto is a divided city. Social polarization and spatial segregation are clearly visible in the landscape, and our inner suburbs are home to more and more concentrated and racialized poverty. Investment in these suburbs is a key part of the solution, and yet its future is in question. How can we enhance investment in Scarborough when budgets everywhere are being cut? How do we unite across different issues and diverse communities? This forum provides an opportunity for community members to come together to learn from research about the big picture of urban change, and to take action for the future of Scarborough’s communities. The forum was hosted by the Scarborough Civic Action Network, Social Planning Toronto, and Cities Centre, University of Toronto.
This report finds that some “neighbourhood strategies” are more effective than others. Drawing on a pilot study that contrasts the experiences of the Kingston?Galloway/Orton Park (KGO) priority neighbourhood, with Parkdale, a downtown community that faces similar social and economic challenges but which did not receive Priority Neighbourhood (PN) designation, the report demonstrates that how we diagnose the problems in neighbourhoods matters profoundly in how we respond. This research further suggests that there are different ways of understanding neighbourhoods active within the PN strategy. According to residents and community workers, some ways of making sense of neighbourhoods and making change in neighbourhoods are more effective and responsive than others, and this report explores these strategies and practices in some detail. It includes findings about both effective and ineffective strategies. Effective neighbourhood strategies cultivate social infrastructure. They stem from explanations for concentrated poverty that assign responsibility to government policy and economic change at the local, regional, national, and global scale. They restore investment in human services and facilities in areas that have been overlooked, but they also advocate change at scales much larger than the local in order to respond to social polarization, segregation, and the racialization of poverty. Effective strategies for neighbourhoods are tailor?made for local conditions by local communities. They are accountable and inclusive, provide meaningful skills development that responds directly to identified gaps and needs, and they explicitly address persistent inequalities such as those that are manifest along the lines of race, mental health, class, and gender.
Cities Centre, University of Toronto, June 2011. Toronto’s inner suburbs are home to many poor households, including members of many racialized groups. At the same time, social services in the inner suburbs are few and far between. This study looks at one neighbourhood (Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park) in Scarborough, and its social infrastructure. Social infrastructure is not just the social services or programs available to residents of a neighbourhood, but the area’s resources and relationships, such as spaces for gathering, opportunities for learning, as well as partnerships and networks within and beyond the community level. Social infrastructure exists at the local scale, but relies on public policy, capital investment, and social networks that are not necessarily local. This report draws on the insights of residents, community workers, non-profit agencies and public sector staff who are committed to improving everyday life for people in Toronto’s low income communities.
Toronto’s Inner Suburbs: Investing in Social Infrastructure in Scarborough, by Deborah Cowen and Vanessa Parlette, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, University of Toronto, June 2011
Changes in immigration policy and in labour and housing markets, the dismant]ing of the social welfare safety net, the closing of psychiatric institutions, and the rising costs of living in the city’s core have all affected the inner suburbs. These areas today are home to many poor households, including members of many racialized groups. At the same time, social services in the inner suburbs are few and far between.
The result: dramatically under-serviced inner suburban neighbourhoods characterized by large numbers of residents with low incomes, many of whom face physical and mental health challenges, as well as greater numbers of newcomers.
Deborah Cowen is a professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography and Programme in Planning. Vanessa Parlette is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Toronto. Both have been active in community projects in Kingston Galloway/Orion Park for the past five years.